Address by Morgan Johansson, Minister for Public Health and Social Services,
To the ECAD 10th Anniversary Mayors' Conference
May 16, 2003
Madam Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen,
As Minister of Public Health and Social Services I have given the campaign against illicit drugs top priority, and I would therefore like to express my happiness that this conference, celebrating the 10th anniversary Mayor's conference has materialised and that I have been given the opportunity of taking part in it.
Let me start by saying a few words about the development of the drug situation in Sweden over the last decades. In the 60's and 70's the Swedish drug policy was rather liberal and the prevalence of drug abuse was very high. There were even experiments consisting of prescribing illicit drugs to drug addicts, as an attempt to counter the high prevalence. However, this policy turned out to be contra productive and disastrous and resulted in an increase of drug trafficking and drug abuse and drugs tended to spread to new groups.
I would like to instance this with our experience of measures to deal with small-scale drug trading.
During the 1960s, when the drug problem was relatively new to Sweden, the police argued that resources must be concentrated on containing large-scale, organised drug trafficking. If the organisers and wholesalers could be caught, the entire market would collapse. It was better, and more cost-effective, to concentrate on the big consignments instead of hunting drug abusers who were only selling to finance their own habit.
At this time the Swedish Prosecutor-General issued a directive to the effect that charges were to be dropped against everyone possessing small quantities of drugs purely for their own use, and he defined the amount of drugs in a person's possession which could be deemed purely for their own use. The effect was found to be that the organised dealers used this as a means of evading arrest, by never having more than the stipulated quantity about them. Needless to say, they were all carrying drugs intended purely for their own use.
So there we were, faced with a situation where the legislation was meant to limit all drug trading but its practical application was making life easier for the drug dealers. The general public took this practice to imply that drugs in small quantities were fairly harmless, and the acceptance of drugs by public opinion, coupled with a growth of supply, caused drug abuse to multiply. Several research studies have shown that a hard core of the heavy drug abusers we have today began using drugs during this very period.
One effect was the appearance of fairly open market places where everyone knew that drugs were being sold and no one batted an eyelid. This had consequences above all for inquisitive youngsters who were attracted to the parks and public squares concerned, not necessarily because they had made up their minds to buy drugs, but also because these were exciting places. Frequenting such surroundings in this way is supremely liable to turn the onlooker into a drug abuser. Sure enough, the school surveys which are taken regularly in Sweden showed that during this period we had the largest proportion of youngsters who had tried drugs at one time or another.
We were forced by the pressure of events to reconsider our strategy. The drug supply could not be limited solely by attacking large-scale trafficking. We also needed to limit small-scale street trading. This change was intended above all as a preventive measure to make drugs harder to come by for youngsters on the point of abusing them. The established abusers would probably already have contacts capable of supplying them, so street-level initiatives would be unlikely to have more than a marginal effect on drug supply where they were concerned. Nor was that the main intention.
Another effect which became apparent later on was that the open drug markets were important for new players in a hurry to set themselves up as traders. During the civil war in former Yugoslavia, several of the armed bands saw a chance of financing their armed struggle by drug trading. Their object was to quickly raise as much money as possible. Unlike the established criminal organisations, they had no need of a high profit in the long term and were able to dump prices in order to gain rapid admission to the market. This proved highly successful in those European cities where there were big drug scenes, where there were large numbers of potential customers within a small area and where drug trading could proceed relatively undisturbed. As a result, heroin abuse underwent a drastic increase in these areas. In places without open drug markets, cornering the trade was less easy without contacts, and the rise in trafficking and drug abuse was less dramatic.
The limitation of small-scale trading did not require any changes in the law. Drug trading was already prohibited, but a distinct political message needed to be conveyed to the police, for example, compelling them to alter their working methods. There was also a need for a changed and more articulate drug policy which was intelligible and acceptable to public opinion. None of these things could be accomplished overnight, of course. Instead the process required consistent endeavour over a long period of time, with many debates on drug policy.
We were helped here by Sweden's long tradition of temperance organisations, a tradition which spurred the development of a number of NGOs demanding a more restrictive policy in drugs. For all these various reasons, public opinion swung round to accept and support the new policy.
The number of young persons using drugs declined, according to the school surveys, and in the mid-1980s was lower than ever previously recorded. Unfortunately we can now see that developments in the 1990s took a different turn, and young persons' drug use has increased again, though it still falls short of the levels of the 1970s.
The Swedish Commission on narcotic drugs, which evaluated the drug policy, sees several different reasons for this increase. One of them, the Commission maintains, is a scaling down of public initiatives during the 1990s. Both preventive work and treatment measures have diminished in scope and intensity, and so, in the action plan on narcotic drugs adopted in 2001, the Government has set itself the aim of once more mobilising various public bodies to combat drug abuse.
The Swedish drug policy is based on three core pillars: prevention, law enforcement and treatment. These elements are considered to be tightly interlinked, which means that we cannot just focus on one or even two of them. If we are having bad results concerning prevention and treatment, we cannot compensate this by putting more efforts at law enforcement. Conversely, we cannot lower the guard on law enforcement just by saying that we are putting efforts on prevention. Moreover, every addiction has a start and addicts often recruit new addicts since they often finance their own use by selling drugs to others.
Instead, there must be a balance between these three pillars and we must take all measures jointly.
Throughout the world, an obvious trend in recent years has been that the consumption of synthetic drugs and cannabis is part of a glorified and cool lifestyle. Strong economic forces are acting in this area and we have to jointly rally up against these forces. Unfortunately, the message of glorification is also spread by the media and by us politicians! When we are talking about "party drugs" we are in a way indicating that these drugs in fact are deeply connected with amusement and relaxation among young people.
Parallel to the glorification trend, there is also a trend of promoting different drugs as more or less harmless. Even though this mainly concerns cannabis, it is also increasingly valid for synthetic drugs.
As you all know, cannabis is the most widely and frequently abused illicit drug in the world. Based on UNODC estimates, there may be as many as 147 million people - at least - who use the drug on a yearly basis. Furthermore, its use is on the rise, especially among young people. And on top of this there has also been an increase in THC content and the availability of particularly potent versions of cannabis.
These two trends emerge into one, which means that young people perceive these drugs as both glamorous and harmless. This is also proven by the fact that the consumption of cannabis and synthetic drugs is increasing in almost all parts of the world.
Now the first question we must ask is if this constitutes a substantial problem or not. In my view, it certainly does, and for a number of reasons.
I sometimes hear arguments that these trends only constitute a very minor problem, since most of the young people only experiment and do not get addicted to these drugs. I believe that it is a great mistake to only concentrate on drug dependence or addiction when trying to tackle the problem.
I believe we must have a wider approach, by also combating the experimentation itself. Do we appreciate that so many of our youngsters consume drugs, even considering that they will not all end up as heavy drug addicts? I really do not think so. Even those people only experimenting with drugs might be subject to serious health and social damages. And it is our responsibility not to let this happen.
Today we know more of the consequences of cannabis consumption than we did before. Last month, an international conference gathering some of the most prominent cannabis researchers, was organised in Stockholm. The overall conclusion of the conference is that cannabis is a more harmful drug than some claim it to be. Evidence shows that it has lasting effects on those parts of the brain, which allow us to think, reason and form our personality. It could also contribute to the development of such disorders as depression and schizophrenia.
Even though much more research still needs to be done, the Stockholm Conference convinced me that we do have a more robust basis today for shaping policy with regard to cannabis than we had before.
So what can we do?
It is important that there is a barrier for young people to cross before starting experimenting with drugs. It is important to have them thinking before, not after.
Early intervention is furthermore of crucial importance.
I believe that one of the most important things that we, politicians and ministers responsible for public health and drug policy issues, can do is to fight the trends of glorification of drugs. We must support the public opinion, including young people, in a restrictive view on drugs. To get support in the public opinion is one of the most important parts of an efficient drug policy.
This is an important responsibility for us sitting here today. Remember that we are right now a part of prevention. What we say is of great importance, sometimes probably of greater importance than what we think.
There will probably always be individuals who will be addicted to drugs and it is of utmost importance that the society always has a goal to help them back to a drug free life. To do that it is necessary to have a broad spectrum of programmes for treatment and care that can be used for different individuals and different drug patterns. Once again it is important not only to focus on the hard drug addicts, but also to people not yet addicted.
Those of us who argue for an evidence-based and restrictive approach are sometimes accused of being on some kind of moral crusade. I would say that what we need to do is to look at the evidence in an open and objective way. This is not a question of morality as much as it is a question of listening to those who are experts in this area.
Moreover, there are some claims that the international drug control treaties are creating more problems than they solve. I strongly disagree with this. The conventions enjoy international consensus. They are flexible instruments that help us to limit the production and use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substance to medical and scientific purposes.
The burden of proof should not be on those of us who are in favour of the conventions, but on those who believe that the drug control regime should be relaxed. We do not have a mandate to experiment with the health and development of future generations. The risks are just too great. Until we are presented with evidence that tells us otherwise, we must pursue a restrictive policy in regard to all illicit drugs.
We face a fundamental challenge to reverse those very dangerous trends that threaten the structure of our societies and our basic cultural values. Our best insurance is to maintain a negative attitude towards drug abuse among the general public. Solidarity with disadvantaged, vulnerable groups and concern for our children and young people requires that. It is also an issue of democracy and preservation of democratic rights.
Governments can legislate, provide financial budgetary resources and adopt drug policies. But drug policy is implemented at local level. The work done locally by public authorities, NGOs and, ultimately, by all members of civic society, determines the results. Coherent strategies, with everyone pulling in the same direction, require strong political leadership at all levels.
No country can solve the problem single-handed. Today this applies more than ever. The growing production and sale of illegal drugs, coupled with progressively intensified and internationalised marketing leaves us more dependent than ever before on effective international co-operation. And it is becoming more and more vital for the countries and cities that are trying to sustain a consistent, restrictive policy on drugs to join forces against the legalisation movement.
It is therefore encouraging that ECAD has been able to engage so many European cities in the fight against drugs, and that so many have come here today to discuss drug policy at the local and regional levels. I wish you every success in your future work during the next coming ten years.
[< Back ]